Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater opens the first of its three programmes at Sadler’s Wells with Rennie Harris’ Lazarus. Created for the company’s 60th anniversary last year, this restlessly intelligent two-act work is based on Ailey’s life but resists biographical sanctification or easy evocations of suffering and jubilatory rebirth. Instead Harris asks difficult questions about what it means to be African-American.
There’s a nightmarish quality to much of the imagery: to the sound of rattling coughs, we see a crumpled protagonist figure (Daniel Harder) held up by another man and dragged offstage, a sequence that’s mirrored multiple times by different pairings. Trembling bouts of worship give way to an anguished mass exodus on hands and knees, while Harder remains ambivalently on the edge of things, both subsumed and supported by the group.
As an insistent beat emerges from layered fragments of voice (Ailey’s and Harris’), the dance gets going: wonderful waves of fleet-footed, loose-topped movement in the GQ style of Philadelphia, Harris’ hometown. The company dances with such thoroughness and spontaneity, but the uplift and energy are snatched away at the last minute, cleverly matched by the way the big brass entrance in Nina Simone’s Feeling Good gets jammed and distorted. A satisfactory emotional payoff can’t overcome the pain.
Ailey’s 1960 signature work Revelations – performed at every show – provides the consolation, as the yearning reach of Fix Me Jesus and nervy energy of I Wanna Be Ready find fulfilment in the finale, the company deploying luxurious technique at a leisurely pace.